UW-Extension Cooperative Extension
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Contact: Rebecca Christoffel, 608-265-8264
Entry Date: June, 2002
File Under: Wildlife
Wisconsin snakes on the move in late spring
MADISON, Wis. - Homeowners may be startled to find a snake in their basement or traversing their property at this time of year, according to Rebecca Christoffel, wildlife outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension. Christoffel gets many calls in late spring from people who have discovered a snake in their yard or house.
“It’s important for people to know that these snakes are simply moving from where they spent the winter to where they will spend the summer months,” Christoffel said. “They may have been hibernating in stone foundations or cisterns and can have difficulty finding their way back out.”
This seasonal movement takes place in late spring and again in early fall. Christoffel urges homeowners to allow a week or so for the snakes to move through their property, taking care not to injure or kill them and keeping pets away.
“Wisconsin is home to 22 different snake species that vary tremendously in size, coloration and diet.”, said Christoffel, who conducts workshops each year to help acquaint people with local snake varieties.
Although there are two venomous snake species in Wisconsin, they are very rare and Christoffel said, “The fear and perception of these animals is highly overrated.”
Both of the venomous snake species have protected status, which means they should not be killed unless they pose an immediate life-threatening danger. The massasauga rattlesnake or swamp rattler is an endangered species and is rarely encountered. It lives in low marshy areas in central and west central Wisconsin. There are only a few isolated populations in Wisconsin, at the mouth of the Chippewa River, near Portage, near the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin, and in the Turtle Creek area in Walworth. The timber rattlesnake is listed as a protected wild animal. It is found mainly near cliffs, rock outcroppings and steep hillsides along the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries in southwestern Wisconsin, although they occasionally turn up outside this range.
“If you encounter one of these snakes,” Christoffel advises, “your best response is to back off. They simply want to be left alone and will look for an escape route and move out of your way.”
To help the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) track the species range of these rattlesnakes, report any sightings by calling 1-888-74 SNAKE (1-888-747-6253). Call this number if you have a rattlesnake you want relocated or to report the killing of a rattlesnake.
Three other Wisconsin snake species are classified as “endangered,” meaning that they are on the verge of extinction. These are the queen snake and the western and northern ribbon snakes. Seven other snakes are classified as “species of special concern.” Fear and persecution of snakes, past bounties on rattlesnakes and loss of habitat have contributed to the decline of these species.
“Protecting just one habitat is not enough,” Christoffel said. Snakes require multiple habitats as their needs vary with their life stage. In addition to needing foraging sites, they need basking sites to warm themselves in the sun, and habitat in which to catch prey and avoid predators. They also need an overwintering site each year with adequate protection from cold temperatures.
Snakes help control potentially destructive insects and rodents, but if an intruding snake cannot be tolerated, you can carefully capture the snake and release it away from human dwellings. To learn more about snakes, how to identify venomous snakes and how to deal with problem snakes, there are two recommended publications available.
“Snakes of Wisconsin” (G3139) is a UW-Extension publication written by Scott Craven, UW-Madison/Extension wildlife specialist, and George Knudsen, former DNR chief naturalist. For a copy, contact your county UW-Extension office or Cooperative Extension Publications at 608-262-3346. The publication can also be viewed online at http://www1.uwex.edu/ces/pubs/index.cfm.
A second publication, also titled “Snakes of Wisconsin,” (ER100-00) is available from the DNR Bureau of Endangered Species. Rebecca Christoffel coauthored this publication with Bob Hay and Lisa Ramirez of the Bureau of Endangered Species. You can obtain a copy by sending $3 to P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707.